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For Asian Americans in the Midwest, the census is a new — and difficult — challenge

“The more accurately that we can describe the need of our community ... the better we’re able to access the dollars that we need.”
Image: Iowa Refugee
Volunteer teacher Alicia Soppe, from right, goes over the Louisiana Purchase during a Burmese civic class made possible by U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants office at First United Methodist Church, in Waterloo, Iowa on Jan. 29, 2014.Matthew Putney / Waterloo Courier via AP file

The Midwest has seen some of the fastest rates of Asian-American growth in the last decade, owing in part to refugee resettlement.

But with Asian Americans least likely to fill out the census form — and most concerned their answers will be used against them — community advocates fear that this group in parts of the Midwest could be undercounted in the 2020 census, which could negatively affect how billions of dollars in federal funding will be distributed and who receives translated voting materials.

“It can be a challenge to get people to participate in the survey,” said Sheila Dorsey Vinton, executive director of the Asian Community and Cultural Center, a nonprofit in Lincoln, Nebraska.

With less than a year to go, community organizers in states like Iowa and Nebraska have their work cut out for them. They need to pitch the importance of a decennial count to Asian Americans, including new immigrants and refugees, amid government mistrust among some groups and a proposed Trump administration citizenship question.

For some organizations in the Midwest, this census outreach work is new and just getting underway, if it has started at all.

“We’re all in this learning curve, in making sure that our communities are counted,” said Sanjita Pradhan, a volunteer who leads civic engagement at the Iowa Asian Alliance, a nonprofit. “But I think we understand it’s very important, and we want to do everything we can.”


The census, a congressionally mandated head count of the country’s population done once every 10 years, is used to decide the number of seats awarded to states in the House of Representatives, the way representative boundaries are drawn, and how more than $675 billion a year in federal funds is distributed.

It is also used in determining which states and counties are required to provide voter language assistance according to the Voting Rights Act.

The 2020 census could face a number of hurdles to ensuring a complete and accurate count, among them budget woes, testing cutbacks, potential cybersecurity weaknesses, hiring shortfalls and the ongoing legal battle over the citizenship question.

“We certainly feel like the federal government, state and local governments, foundations really need to invest in helping to prepare our communities to meet these challenges and get folks to participate,” said Daniel Ichinose, director of the Demographic Research Project/Census Information Center at the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles.

The Iowa Asian Alliance hosting a voter registration booth at a 2016 community event.
The Iowa Asian Alliance hosting a voter registration booth at a 2016 community event.Courtesy of the Iowa Asian Alliance

Unlike in previous censuses, respondents in 2020 will be asked primarily to complete the survey online, a cost-cutting measure. Although the internet version will be available in five Asian languages, the Census Bureau plans to only offer the paper version in English and Spanish, Ichinose noted.

“Some of what we’ve learned from message-testing efforts is that our communities will be disproportionately relying on paper rather than online forms,” he said. “So that’s a very big concern for our communities.”

Census data helps decide how over $800 billion a year is allocated geographically for roughly 300 financial assistance programs created by Congress, according to the “Counting For Dollars 2020” project at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.

The project estimated that 37 states gave up a “measurable amount” of funds in Fiscal Year 2015 for each person missed in the last census. For those states, the median loss per person not counted was $1,091.

While a 2012 Census report noted that Asians were not undercounted in the last census, some advocates dispute those findings, taking issue with how the bureau conducted its analysis. For example, Ichinose said that an overcount of Asian-American and Pacific Islander college students helped make invisible some undercounts in other communities. He also noted that the data did not indicate undercount rates by ethnic group.

Among the 55 large federal spending programs dependent on census data mentioned in the George Washington University report are Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Image: Bhutanese refugee
Pema Yanzon, right, places a momo dumpling, a Tibetan-Nepali style of food, on a tray in Columbus, Ohio, last year. Columbus has the largest Bhutanese population in the country.Martha Irvine / AP file

For Fiscal Year 2016, Iowa received close to $8.8 billion and Nebraska $4 billion through these 55 programs, the project found. Medicaid accounted for around 35 percent of Iowa’s total funding for these federal spending programs and 27 percent of Nebraska’s.

While both states have comparatively small Asian-American populations, roughly 1 in 5 Asians in both Iowa and Nebraska still fall below the poverty line, according to Census Bureau estimates. Depending on income and other factors, some could qualify for certain assistance programs.

An inaccurate 2020 census count could thus affect funding levels for programs like Medicaid and food stamps, as well as grants and loans for state and local governments, companies and nonprofits.

“We expect that this could be among the most difficult censuses that we’ve ever had to conduct,” Ichinose said.

The Census Bureau did not respond to emailed questions.

A bureau spokesperson told NBC News in 2017 that its “top priority is to have a complete and accurate count of everyone.”


Since the last census in 2010, Iowa’s Asian population jumped to 97,188 in 2017, from 65,154 (a 49 percent rise), while Nebraska’s grew to 61,150 in 2017, from 41,512 in 2010, (a 47 percent increase), according to Census Bureau estimates.

That puts Iowa and Nebraska third and fourth as states with the fastest growing Asian-American communities in the country, an analysis shows. It’s also a big reason why community advocates want to make sure the Census Bureau gets the count right.

“Overall for Asian communities, I think being invisible is one of the biggest fears,” said Pradhan, who was also a member of the president’s advisory commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, appointed by President Barack Obama.

Image: Iowa Refugees
John Lazum, left, and his family pose in their new home on Independence Avenue in Waterloo, Iowa on Oct. 29, 2013. The family, refugees from Burma, spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Malaysia before coming to the United States in 2010 with the help of Catholic Charities.Matthew Putney / Waterloo Courier via AP file

Since 1975, Iowa has worked with the the Department of State to resettle refugees, defined as people who have fled their countries out of fear of persecution based on race or religion, among other reasons.

Pradhan said those of Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese descent were among the first refugee groups to settle in Iowa. In the last decade, refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Bhutan have added to Iowa’s growing Asian-American population, of which 53 percent identified as Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese American, according to Census Bureau estimates.

That comes with its share of challenges. Pradhan said Burmese, who total close to 6,000 in Iowa, are arriving with little or no education and face a significant language barrier. Around half of the Burmese in the U.S. have less than a high school degree, according to Census Bureau estimates.

“That has ripple effects to so many things in life,” Pradhan said.

LeeAnn Sinclair, left, an assistant professor at the School of Education at IPFW, works with a group of Burmese women, in Fort Wayne, Ind on March 17, 2007, as part of an adult literacy program held for non-native English speakers.Steve Linsenmayer / The News Sentinel via AP file

The census typically asks about educational attainment and languages spoken at home. Answers to the schooling question help decide how much to allocate to school districts to offer classes in basic skills to adults who haven’t finished high school. Responses to the language question are used to provide grants to school districts for children with limited English proficiency.

Ichinose said Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in places like Iowa and Nebraska struggle with visibility, not only with state and local government programs, but also with local philanthropy. An accurate census is thus essential to rendering a full picture of these populations.

“If these data aren’t available to help demonstrate the growing size of these communities, then they’re really likely to miss out on funding that would be really important in serving these communities,” Ichinose said.


Still, only 55 percent of Asian Americans said they were “extremely” or “very” likely to fill out the census form — the lowest among all racial groups in a survey released in late January by the Census Bureau.

The report also found that Asians, compared to other races, were least familiar with the census and were most concerned their answers would be used against them. The Trump administration’s citizenship question could also affect census participation.

“Depending on where people are coming from, they’re used to lots of government overreach and oversight and so are really sensitive to answering questions like that,” said Dorsey Vinton of the Asian Community and Cultural Center.

Eighteen states, several of the nation's largest cities and immigrant rights groups have sued the government over its decision to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census. The Supreme Court agreed to hear and decide the case before its term ends in late June.

For some groups in the Midwest, census outreach work is only just beginning.

Dorsey Vinton said the federal government was expected to train her organization, the Asian Community and Cultural Center, in February as part of a complete count committee.

Like Iowa, Nebraska is a refugee resettlement state, with many now coming from Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal, according to Dorsey Vinton. Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian Americans together made up around 53 percent of Iowa’s Asian-American population, according to Census Bureau estimates.

Image: Bhutanese refugee
Harka Gurung, a 36-year-old refugee from Bhutan, lifts her 8-year-old daughter, Eden Gurung, as she arrives from school in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 21, 2018. Harka, her husband and daughter were the first of their family to arrive from a refugee camp in Nepal. Her parents and a sister joined them in February after a four-year separation. Columbus is home to about 20,000 Bhutanese immigrants, representing the largest Bhutanese community in the United States.Martha Irvine / AP file

“The work that we do is funded through granting agencies including the federal government, the state and local foundations,” Dorsey Vinton said. “The more accurately that we can describe the need of our community, meaning knowing how many people are here to serve, the better we’re able to access the dollars that we need.”

Pradhan, of the Iowa Asian Alliance, said that while census outreach work is new for the group, members will be attending a conference in March to learn more and will look to partner with various organizations for help.

“We have a lot of work to do in the next few months to build those partnerships,” she said.

With little time left, advocates say states and philanthropic foundations need to step up their support for making the 2020 census as accurate as possible. This is especially true, they say, in parts of the country like the Midwest and the South, where there is less infrastructure in place to engage with the Asian-American community.

“It really does raise the importance of engaging policy makers in those areas to ensure that our communities are on their radar screen,” Ichinose said.

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